(AP) — Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba on Tuesday as a major hurricane, with nothing to stop it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 storm before it crashes ashore Wednesday in Florida, where officials ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate.
Ian made landfall at 4:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in the nation’s main tobacco-growing region.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” occurred Tuesday morning in western Cuba. Ian struck with sustained top winds of 125 mph (205 kmh). As much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge was predicted along Cuba’s coast.
Ian was forecast to strengthen even more over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, reaching top winds of 140 mph (225 kmh) as it approaches Florida’s southwest coast. Tropical storm-force winds were expected across the southern peninsula late Tuesday, reaching hurricane force Wdenesday morning.
“Right now we’re focusing on west central Florida area as the main area for impact,” hurricane specialist Andy Latto told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
With tropical storm-force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida, regardless of where Ian makes landfall. The hurricane center expanded its storm surge warning to the peninsula’s Atlantic coast, and expanded its tropical storm warning from Boca Raton to Brunswick, Georgia — a distance of about 375 miles (603 kilometers).
Gil Gonzalez boarded his windows with plywood Tuesday and had sandbags ready to protect his Tampa home from flooding. He and his wife had stocked up on bottled water and packed flashlights, battery packs for their cellphones and a camp stove with a large propane burner as they got ready to evacuate.
“All the prized possessions, we’ve put them upstairs in a friend’s house and nearby, and we’ve got the car loaded,” Gonzalez said. He added: “I think we’re ready.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said an estimated 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders. He urged people to prepare for power outages, and to get out of its way.
“When you have five to 10 feet of storm surge, that is not something you want to be a part of,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “And Mother Nature is a very fearsome adversary.”
The hurricane center expanded its hurricane warning to include Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River. Fort Myers is in the hurricane zone, and Tampa and St. Petersburg could get their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“People on the barrier islands who decide not to go, they do so at their own peril,” Roger Desjarlais, county manager of Lee County, where Fort Myers is, said early Tuesday. “The best thing they can do is leave.”
The county issued mandatory evacuations for low-lying areas including Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Bonita Beach, where about 250,000 people live.
As the storm’s center moved into the Gulf, scenes of destruction emerged in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. The owner of the premier Finca Robaina cigar producer posted photos on social media showing wood-and-thatch roofs smashed to the ground, greenhouses in rubble and wagons overturned.
“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” wrote Hirochi Robaina, grandson of the operation’s founder.
State media published photos showing broad floodwaters flowing through the town of San Juan y Martinez and more than 1 million Cubans were without power Tuesday morning, including all of the western provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. There were no reports of deaths.